What words are there to describe a friend who brings to your publication dinner, as a celebratory gift, a pair of Prada shoes? Which fit.
Fit to wear Judy Garland's ruby slippers is what I would say about that friend
Friday, 27 February 2009
My mother, who died at the age of 81 from a condition called vascular dementia, could not remember the beginning of a short sentence by the time she was approaching its conclusion, which more or less eliminated from her diminishing world the pleasures of conversation. In the last weeks of her life, the part of her brain that controlled language began to malfunction and she started to speak in weird phrases which, if you listened to them carefully enough, were made up of words and syllables from both English and Yiddish, her first language, which during the long years of her illness she appeared to have completely forgotten.
Her last full, coherent, grammatically intact message to the world was uttered to my sister: "I like your earrings." Her last words to me as mother to daughter, the person she knew to be her daughter and not merely someone she knew she knew, had been stated a few months earlier: "I don't like your hair."
But before she became immobilised by incontinence and other terrible afflictions, the one activity in which my mother was still capable of participating, heart and soul, with a fully functioning mind, was shopping for clothes. She would wander along the street crying and moaning, with me gripping her arm for fear she would fall into the traffic. Her own fate was terrible to her, and she knew it. Then we would get to the small clothing section of the Upper Street [Islington] branch of Marks & Spencer and her identity re-formed; she was a human being once again, capable of assessing the quality of knits and whether this season's hemlines were flattering on her small frame. The shopper's soul-shout, "I want!", raced through her bloodstream. Once, I pointed out that M&S had introduced a delivery service for certain postcodes. "Oh, yeah?" she said. "And you'll pay through the nose for it." But a second or two later she was grasping my arm and asking had I seen the sign that announced that M&S now delivered to certain postcodes.
I took her to buy an outfit for my sister's wedding. As soon as she had ascended the escalator she seized on a Ralph Lauren skirt and Jaeger blouse. She scurried around the store holding fabrics together, "because I've got to match the navy". She cried and stamped her foot when the blouse was too big in the collar, revealing her ruined neck. I understood for the first time that she always wore a little scarf not because her old bones were cold, but because she understood the feminine arts of concealment, how to cover and flatter. She had no intention of being mutton dressed as lamb.
The outfit, which I paid for, cost a bomb. In the taxi back to the home where my sister and I had incarcerated her against her will when she was considered no longer able to function alone, she held her shopping bags with a radiant face, looked at me, eyes milky with innocence and bewilderment. "How are we related?" she asked.
My mother shopped because shopping was what she did and what she was good at. She had an unerring capacity to enter any store and pick out the most expensive item in it; she had a fantastic eye. Even though she almost never had the money to buy the best thing in the shop, she knew what the best thing was, and following on from that, the calculations you needed to make in order to get as close to it as possible: such as when the sales started, or where you could get really good copies, or which secondhand shops had the kind of stock she was looking for.
She had, in other words, taste. And she learned her taste from a variety of sources, such as reading magazines and listening to friends' recommendations, but above all, she spent a great deal of time actually in the shops, looking at things and learning how to discern the good, the bad and the very best. Friends queued up to go shopping with her, for they knew she would take them to the right places and make them try on the things that she knew would suit them.
Poor her, running headlong into the 1960s and a daughter who deliberately frayed the hems of her jeans and wore a handbag made out of a bit of old carpet, instead of Young Jaeger. But, of course, all daughters eventually turn into their mothers, and she had encoded herself inside me already.
Most hostile responses to shopping see it as an act of acquisition, of avarice and greed for things that we do not need but advertising and marketing have made us think we want, a condition that Marx called "false consciousness". We are dupes, and only the strong individualist can hold out against mass consumption. And there are others, of course, who truthfully say that they have no political objection to shopping but they just can't stand it as an activity and regard it as a waste of time.
Against whom I would set those of us who regard it as a pleasure. What does this pleasure consist of, and why do others not experience it; why do they feel, instead, a sense of panic, overwhelmed by what they describe as "too much choice"? Why do I like looking at other people's gardens, while content to allow my own to degenerate into a badly designed, overgrown jungle of strangled plants and rapacious weeds? Because I can't be bothered going out there to do the work of making it bloom. I watch the flowers wither and die from lack of water, and mourn them. But if I wake up and know, at the moment of the mind streaming back from dark into light and consciousness, that what a new navy linen jacket needs is a scarf with a bit of red in it, then I will have ants in my pants until I can get to the shops to find that scarf.
Shopping. A gerund that did not exist before the middle of the 18th century because it did not exist in the way we understand it now. It involved the single revolutionary and emancipatory act of middle-class women with disposable income being able to leave the house. Before this, the goods, or the people who made them, came to the house, either the tailors and seamstresses or the pedlars who sold door-to-door to the poor.
Wednesday, 25 February 2009
BBC Radio Four Woman's Hour today ran an interview with Catherine Hill, the chief interviewee in The Thoughtful Dresser (the book). You can listen to it online here
Catherine W. Hill is the doyenne of Canadian style. She set up and ran the influential boutique Chez Catherine in Toronto where she championed many Italian designers like Armani, Versace and Ferre at the beginning of their careers in the 70’s. Having survived Auschwitz and been amongst thousands of naked shivering women, Catherine has a deep understanding of our need to be clothed and our need for beauty. She believes her own desire to look pretty helped her survive the Holocaust. Jenni talks to her about the connections between her love of fashion and the concentration camp, and the therapeutic value of clothes in her life and the lives of women everywhere.
Linda Grant’s “The Thoughtful Dresser” which features Catherine’s story, is published by Virago on March 5th price £11.99, ISBN 9781844085569.
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Monday, 23 February 2009
I managed to have quite a long talk with Karen Boyd, the Jaeger London designer, at the after-party last night, but such were the strength of the lychee and vodka cocktails, I can't really remember anything about it.
I imagine in the Autumn I'll be wearing this
Saturday, 21 February 2009
We're coming up to publication of The Thoughtful Dresser which you can order from Amazon (see side panel) or if you're abroad, with free delivery worldwide from The Book Depository.
There will be an extract in the Guardian to which I'll give you the heads up once they've confirmed the day. On Wednesday, the book's chief interview will be appearing on Woman's Hour. Catherine Hill was seventeen when she was transported to Auschwitz with her parents who did not survive. She arrived in Canada as a refugee after the war and from the sixties built a career as the fashion maven of Toronto, famous for her Yorkville shop, Chez Catherine. She'll be appearing with me at an event in London at Jewish Book Week chaired by Linda Kelsley, a former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, (everyone welcome, even practising Wiccans). On Saturday I'll be at the Bath Festival taking about The Clothes On Their Backs. And there will be a second extract in the Guardian magazine.
The following Monday, March 2, I'll be on Start the Week and later that evening, Nightwaves. And sometime in the next few days you should actually be able to get the book.
Friday, 20 February 2009
Yesterday I went in to Marks and Spencer's at their invitation to take a look at the Portfolio range for over 45s in the flesh, so to speak. At the Marble Arch store, there were some fabulous things: a Limited Edition tunic dress which looks as if it has missed its way en route to Net a Porter and several Autograph silk dresses and tops I loved.
But Portfolio. No. Not for me.
I looked around for the calf-length denim skirt but could not see it. And do you know why, ladies? Because it has sold out. Yes, the Portfolio range is massively popular and the denim skirt has flown off the rails. What does this tell us? It tells us that M&S is serving its customers. The one's who want affordable Marni look-alikes, and the ones who want to look like early 1980s geography teachers.
Across Britain there are tens of thousands of women who want to dress like frumps. Is this a crime? Personally, I think it should be, but I am an adamant supporter of freedom of expression, even when that freedom is the joy of beige.
I was taken upstairs to the press showroom and shown some of the next batch of stock and there were some big improvements, quite a few things I liked.
But I made the point as comprehensively as I could, that M&S like much of the rest of the high street is making far too many sleeveless dresses that rise above the knee. This will be passed on. We live in hope.
PS M&S also say that they now ship overseas.
Thursday, 19 February 2009
I notice that whereas fat women were once called fat (and many other things, as if being fat were something the Nuremberg laws should have dealt with) they are now referred to as women with curves. 'I am proud of my curves,' I read recently, of a woman with a big bum and bosom. I wonder if the hanging part of the upper arm can now be referred to as a curve?
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Yes, it actually is him.
This morning, I was dressed in navy and ready to go at 7:40 a.m. I went straight to the store to check the L.E.D. lights that they had installed the night before over the entire exterior of the store. The lights are tiny dots that oscillate to create moving images on the surface, and I’m very pleased with the results. At 9 a.m., I headed up to 166th Street with Caroline Kennedy. It was the first time I’ve ever met her, and I found her to be very refined, with impeccable manners.
Dotty and very, very smart.
Throughout our interview Rykiel refers to herself in the third person as “the creator”, alongside “the author”, “the poet” and “the painter,” Often incorporating words into her designs, she once told the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes: “I feel more like a novelist than a fashion designer.”
Is there such a thing as intelligent fashion, I ask? “I don’t know,” she admits, touchingly. “All I can say is that it’s what I try to do. It doesn’t matter one damn bit whether fashion is art or not. You don’t question whether an incredible chef is an artist or not – his cakes are delicious and that’s all that matters. Fashion is there to serve a purpose.”
Just when you presume to think what Rykiel’s take on a certain subject is, she proves you wrong. When I ask whether celebrity came as an unwelcome partner to success, she shakes her head. “No, no. I wanted to be recognised – that really interested me. And as I’ve got older it means more and more to me, because celebrity is recognition of what I have achieved.
"This is an unbelievably difficult job and one I drain myself doing. They recently had a retrospective of my work here in Paris and I walked around it thinking that had it not been by me I would have been thinking: 'My God this woman is wonderful’.
Posted by Linda Grant at 07:58
Michelle Obama's social secretary, Desiree Glapion Rogers, has been attending all the shows at fashion week, acording to Hillary Alexander.
Asked whether she was keeping an eye out for any designs which might be suitable for the First Lady, she smiled and gave me a big wink.
Ms Rogers, 49, a prominent Chicago businesswoman, is a close friend of the Obama family and was part of the campaign’s fundraising team. She was once married to the Chicago millionaire, John Rogers, and has a daughter studying at Yale.
Tuesday, 17 February 2009
The book of The Thoughtful Dresser will be published in two weeks. You can order it from Amazon (see side panel). The US edition will not appear for another year, I'm afraid, but if you're keen you can place international orders with The Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide. They have fulfilment centres globally and it's the best way to buy outside the UK. Click the link here to pre-order.
There are only three women in senior management positions on the British High street - Belinda Earl at Jaeger, Kate Bostock at M&S and Jane Shepherdson who joined Whistles from Top Shop. Shepherdson has engineered a buy-out from the Icelandic firm Baugur which hit the iceberg of the Icelandic financial collapse.
The under 25s with jobs and no mortgages, still living at home, continue to shop like it's 2005, but the over 40s are thinking much more carefully about how we spend, and it is to us that fashion is now looking. Shepherdson says:
"It's an exciting time. For years, there hasn't been anything to separate what 18-year-olds and 40-year-olds are wearing. We've all been buying the same things. But now there's a polarisation. There are things now that girls are wearing - like wet-look leggings - I couldn't possibly think of putting on. That's great, I think. Because what it's forced us to say is, what is anyone else going to wear?"
. . .
So what does a grown woman want? "It's the same, in a way," Shepherdson insists. "We want fashion. That isn't going to go away. We want to wake up and feel there's something new we want to wear. We don't want dumbed-down stuff. Classic, basic and understated is not the way through - if you look at something like that, you think 'No, I've already got it'. What you really need is something like a new silhouette to act on."
The day after Shepherdson sealed the new deal, she did what many women do when feeling good - she went shopping, bagging two pairs of Fendi shoes in a lunchtime. In fashion, the emotional and personal is also professional opportunity. "I love this obsession with shoes," she laughs, looking down at the pointy Chloé ankle boots she's wearing under Whistles jeans. "We haven't had a chance to get into it at Whistles, but we are soon. The thing is, you can wear quite plain clothes, but all you've got to do to make it sexy and glam is put on a fierce, aggressive pair of shoes and it completely modernises it. And I think that applies at whatever age."
I think she is right about one thing. If we are going to spend we want it to be special. No duplicates, few safe classics. No half-hearted purchases. You have to feel the love.
Monday, 16 February 2009
Saturday, 14 February 2009
Cocosa has a number of Ossie Clark items on sale at really good discounts of 50 per cent and up. Here's the dress I wore to the Booker (mine was in black and blue) reduced from £750 to £299 and the iconic blouse of this past season which the designer Avsh Alom gave me, reduced from £250 to £109.
You can join Cocosa if you haven't done already using this voucher. The sale opens noon, Monday.
Friday, 13 February 2009
The new Jaeger Spring-Summer collection has hit the shops. Yesterday I acquired the above items. I realise I keep banging on about this, but as I put them away, I understood how most of what I actually wear at the moment is Jaeger. The black and colour print top with black jeans. The cuff with an LBD. The broiderie anglais dress with my new Nicole Farhi shoes. But not the tie belt. It's an A line without it.
Thursday, 12 February 2009
After widespread agreement yesterday that the new Marks and Spencer Portfolio range for women over the age of 45 is dire, I can't help but notice that some of the reviews of the actual clothes on the M&S site glow with approval.
Here is a woman from Lincoln on that denim skirt:
at last a denim skirt that fits. nice fit around the hips attractive plaited belt. comes in two lengths. the hem swings as you walk it made me feel 10 years younger and ready to dance. a must have for every girls wardrobe.
I can't help but notice that the writer signs herself 'frumpymama'. This raises a question. Do middle-aged women wear dreary clothes because they don't know better and the scales would fall from their eyes if you showed them Marc Jacobs, or do they actually like this sort of thing? Do they look in the mirror and think, This is fabulous. I look great.
Or is that they actively wish to buy and wear clothes which make them look anonymous, invisible and so blank they they are a grey mist in the air? And is that a bad thing? If that's want you want? I think it is a bad thing, but feel free to disagree.
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
I have often thought that if there were a national referendum on whether to scrap either the Royal Family or Marks and Spencer's, it would be the tiaras and state banquet dinner services that the removal men would be wrapping up in tissue paper, not bundles of reasonably priced reinforced gusset knickers.
So much as I hate kicking M&S, (I am currently wearing a pair of their jeans) I cannot help agree with Sarah Mower's account of its new Portfolio range, aimed at the over-50s:
If there's one thing worse than mutton dressed as lamb, it's mutton dressed as mutton. I wanted to approve of M&S's Marie Helvin-promoted Portfolio range, but wild horses wouldn't drag me into that stuff. I just can't see how it's supposed to offer anything different from the rest of the M&S stock, and the attempt at "elegance" for the over-50s is worse than patronising.
What woman (of any age) could possibly want a pair of pull-on jersey bell-bottoms with gold "sailor" buttons? For a start, the shape is not fashionable in any sense. Second, the thought of what they would do to anyone's backside and thighs is enough to make one cry. And third… hang on, aren't these just souped-up versions of the synthetic slacks M&S has sold since time immemorial? I had a Saturday job in Bath's M&S as a schoolgirl, and I know of which I speak. At that age, I hoped someone would shoot me before I got old enough to need flared crimplene bottoms.
Tuesday, 10 February 2009
I wonder if there is any way of democratising the couture collections short of plebs like me actually buying something. I do not wish the couture shows to die for want of customers. They represent the pinnacle of what is possible in that humble object, clothing, as a Picasso transcends pigment and canvas. Observe the above shot from Valentino which resembles a Busby Berkely set.
But if they aren't to dwindle, we're going to need to buy a piece. I would suggest selling in-depth video downloads on the internet, but as any fule no, no-one can make money from the internet. Or is that no longer true?
Monday, 9 February 2009
On Saturday an architect came round. I wanted to discuss with him some building work on my flat. The plans I had turned out not to be viable. The only way I could have what I wanted was a far more extensive and costly renovation. My interest ebbed away, and then he mentioned three words.
You know how drug dealers give their victims a free hit of heroin?
Just three words, and now I have lost interest in this blog because I am immersed in design and and interiors magazines.
In America you take these three words for granted, but not here in Britain and especially not in flats in late Victorian houses.
Posted by Linda Grant at 23:57
Saturday, 7 February 2009
I like Simon Doonan. He used to dress the windows at Barney's and now he's the creative director. He's a rather flamboyant English queen and since Quentin Crisp, New York has always held out its arms to flamboyant English queens. Shame Oscar Wilde had to die in a hotel room in Paris:
What is your one piece of fashion or beauty advice? Wear your fab clothes every day. Keeping your best clothes for parties is the same as leaving the plastic on your lampshades. There are limitations, though; nobody wants an invasive medical procedure performed by a doctor in a Cavalli sequined unitard.
I've added to the blog role Juliet Warkentin's blog. A former editor of Marie Claire, she is the content director at WSGN, the fashion industry trend forecasting site originally established by Marc Worth and his brother. The WSGN site is subscription only but Juliet has contacted me to let me know about the site's blog, which is full of useful information.
Thursday, 5 February 2009
Joan Burstein (Mrs B) owner of Browns boutique on South Molton Street, who saved up her clothing ration coupons in 1947 to buy her first New Look dress, who went bust in the Sixties and built up her business again from scratch, and who discovered John Galliano, has this to say:
"It's important to be positive when times are hard, but to those who are facing having to start again now I would say this: to have got where you did, you must have had talent, so use it again – and be humble, accept advice and work hard. I worked very hard, and now, I think, it's important to be doing my bit for British businesses because this is our economy and we're stuck with it."
This recession, she says, feistiness creeping into her voice, only feels different to the last one "because then we didn't have it blaring at us from everywhere. Yes, we had a bad time in November but we did well in December. The bottom line is that people still want to buy, and if they haven't got the money they'll save to buy the things that they want.
"There's too much doom and gloom, but I promise you this: people still aspire to own things."
A couple of times a year a man appears at my door with a handbag for me from Anya Hindmarch. This is the Jackson. Ivory glace leather with a patent insert and lock and a leather covered chain shoulder strap. Except that yellow bit is blue on mine.
Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Baugur, the Icelandic company which owns a large number of high street shops in Britain, has gone bust. Its portfolio includes Hamleys, House of Fraser, jewellers Mappin and Webb and Watches of Switzerland. Enter Sir Philip Green with a shopping list.
A Baugur spokesman explained that talks with the Icelandic banks had collapsed last night. He said that the application "to enter into the moratorium process" - the equivalent of America's Chapter 11 protection - would give the company protection from its creditors for three weeks.
The spokesman also insisted that the day-to-day operations of the companies owned by Baugur would not be affected by today's news.
"The last thing we want to do is fuel fear on the high street that jobs will be lost," he said.
One rival retail executive said selling any retail businesses would be a tough task: "Most of these businesses are doing okay and their managements have been trying to organise buyouts for some time. But it is just impossible to get any financing. The banks just aren't doing any lending. The private equity people have got money but they are still dependent on being able to put debt in as well."
Shares in French Connection slumped by 10% this morning. More than 20% of its shares are owned by a group of Icelandic investors including Baugur. Debenhams shares slipped by 3% this morning.
They own or have stakes in:
Shoe Studio Group
Day Birger et Mikkelsen
House of Fraser
Magasin Du Nord
Mappin & Webb
Watches of Switzerland
Wyevale Garden Centres
Jess Cartner-Morley has an absolutely delightful piece in the Guardian today about snow person chic:
Eighteen years is a long time in fashion. The last time there were this many snowmen, John Major was in Downing Street and MC Hammer was on Top of the Pops. Grunge hadn't even happened, let alone been revived. Hemlines were on their way down, along with the stockmarket.
As befits the over-sharing Facebook generation, this year's snowpeople are an exhibitionist bunch. An abundance of bikini wearing suggests that the modern snowlady has been much influenced by Lady Gaga, pop singer of the moment, who garnered a blizzard of media attention last month for undertaking a promotional blitz of London dressed in knickers, sunglasses and little else.
Among the male snow population, the Raymond Briggs look has undergone a similar update. Skinny scarves of the type favoured by Russell Brand and Johnny Borrell of Razorlight have gained ground over chunky knitwear. And the influences of Pete Doherty and Justin Timberlake can perhaps be sensed in a certain dastardly slant of the hat.
For a snowperson, fashion is all in the accessories. One enterprising character picked up on the trend for oversized buttons by replacing the traditional lumps of coal with cucumber slices.
But snowmen remain aloof from some of the vagaries of fashion. The trend for size zero models and celebrities seems to have had mercifully little impact on the BMI of the great British snowman. Anyone concerned that the younger generation's distorted body image would express itself in snowmen with hewn clavicles and wearing Spanx can relax: a full face and a well-rounded tummy are still desirable attributes in snowpeople of both genders.
Do read the whole thing
I have a feeling that we are going to be knitting tunic dresses and dhoti pants at the guillotine when we come to cut off the heads of couturiers.
Roger Vivier showed a pair of £30,000 shoes this week:
They feature an assortment of life's little luxuries such as 24 ct gold-coated mesh, semi-precious stones, jet, satin ribbons, silk chiffon, diamanté and crocodile skin fashioned into dainty rosettes.
The "Dovima", an 11cm, spike-heeled confection of gilded silk mesh and jewels, is embellished with a pair of rose pink-dyed, taxidermy birds with gold and crystal heads.
Another style called "Daphne", in honour of the best-dressed socialite and millionairess, Daphne Guinness, the ex-wife of Greek shipping heir, Spyros Niarchos.
They are a midnight lace creation of jet, silk, crocodile and satin bows.
The collection of six hand-made creations, starting at £9,500 a pair and rising up to a stratospheric £30,000.
They were unveiled during the Paris Haute Couture season this week.
Tuesday, 3 February 2009
If you have an iPhone or an iPod Touch then your life is about to be transformed by this little girls' gadget
You take photographs of all your clothes, upload them to the app, and then put together outfits. (I now know I have twenty bags, after a major clear-out last year.) You even click on when you wore an item last so you can scroll down and see if you've got value for money for that sale dress
Watching the news last night, I could not help but notice that every single reporter standing in the snow reporting on wrecked cars/stranded commuters/snowmen were wearing a Michelin Man jacket with the words the North Face embroidered in the breast. A brand new to me (I have a Nicole Farhi shearling) - do they show in New York or Milan?
Meanwhile in this little BFI film from the snowy winter of 1963, we see a steam train set out alone the English landscape as it were en route from Moscow to Novosibirsk. Tough navvies clear the snow from the tracks wearing what appear to be tweed jackets, caps, mufflers and in one case, the hint of a tie. And bare hands. The train driver, obviously, wears a tie, as do the passengers.
Monday, 2 February 2009
This is so exciting. The most snow we have had for 18 years in London and it is still snowing. There are no buses and not much underground service either, and our London parks are full of people tobogganing.
This evening there will be an all-comers snowball fight in Trafalgar Square
Everything was big - the jewellery, the shoulder pads, the hair. Everybody had a perm, and then you put rollers in to make it even bigger. There was a hairspray called Hard Rock - your hair didn't move for three days.
The makeup was quite ghastly - blue eye shadow and dark lip-liner with a paler lipstick, really Jodie Marsh - so I tried to tone it down and went big on hair and accessories. Butler & Wilson was where we all used to go for jewellery. For a dress for a night out, it was all sequins, very Dynasty. Jumpsuits were a great look, especially for women who wanted to hide a bit of a bulge.
We wore a lot of ripped denim. You ripped your own. On the cover of Touch Me, my first single, I didn't want to show my boobs because I had just finished being a page 3 girl. My mum and I came up with the idea of ripping a hole in the bum of my jeans. It was just a bit cheeky, you know? I also used to like wearing a denim jacket with lots of bling on it, which me and my mum also made - my auntie had just died and we took her old crystal jewels and sewed them on. You would wear ripped denim with Converse trainers. They're huge again now, aren't they? It's almost as if I could go into the attic and dig everything out again, though it might be a bit mouldy.
Sunday, 1 February 2009
Katherine Whitehorn was the journalist who inspired me to be a journalist, when I was a teenager in the Sixties. Stylish, witty and intelligent, she was the model career woman.
Here she is returning to the Paris collections after a first visit in 1956 and recording the differences:
But just about everything else has changed since I was the Observer's fashion editor in the very early 1960s - let alone when I was flung into the job of covering the collections for Picture Post in 1956 because the only other girl on the magazine had left for the south of France with the sacked editor. Last week I was in Paris with the Observer's fashion editor, Jo Jones, and her deputy, Helen Seamons, to gawp and report on how different things have become.
The shows aren't, for a start, held in the same places. No more the silky, scented salons of the couture houses themselves, but an outside venue, which can be Lacroix on the entire ground floor of the Pompidou Centre (looks like a disused factory), or a vast black marquee in the grounds of the Musée Rodin (Dior), holding at least a thousand people sitting in stands as if watching football, the models emerging from a translucent wall like a medieval stained-glass window, with the "Raindrop Prelude" belting out at a volume loud enough to be the Hailstone Prelude. Or a huge room (Chanel) rumoured to have once been a bank, beautifully decorated with paper flowers, entirely in white, to look like the fairytale palace of the Snow Queen.
The models were always beautiful, but there are differences. Today's girls work for lots of houses, sometimes several shows in a day, up to 30 of them walking swiftly by in teetering shoes; they have to be more or less interchangeable, girls and clothes much the same size - which is nine feet high and four inches wide, with expressions that are always stonefaced and frequently sour. Models were always aloof, of course, but in Lanvin and Nina Ricci they were even sometimes allowed to smile. Back then they mostly worked for an individual designer and for far longer, not just the one show, and changed frantically in the cabine from one outfit to another. I remember Pierre Balmain praising one with pale hair and a white skin. "She is colourless!" he said - so he could design for her as on a blank sheet.
One difference that struck me right away was that everyone was taking photographs - not just a heaving bank of mostly male photographers at one end, looking like something out of Brueghel, but everyone else on their mobiles. In my day the couture houses were paranoid about secrecy, about the fear of being copied - which they constantly were, of course. You weren't even allowed to sketch, let alone photograph - one of my friends was barred from all the shows for doing so. "I drew in Dior," she wept. Which didn't stop commercial buyers having someone with a photographic memory race back to his hotel room and frantically draw - and I suppose I can admit, after 50 years, that once when I was stuck a friendly fashion chain let me have some of such pirated sketches for the Observer. There were embargoes and release dates, and magazines weren't even allowed to photograph the models until weeks after the shows; you had to choose the girls, choose the clothes and then come back for the actual photo shoot.
Posted by Linda Grant at 10:02